Lessons from Korea
Within minutes of hitting dry land, the efficiency of the United States Army had us loaded down with M1 Garand rifles, field packs and ammunition clips weighing heavy on our belts. For most of us, this would be our first experience in actual combat, but with confidence in our stateside training and earlier assignments, I was prepared as a newly assigned platoon sergeant. My initial destination was a place called the Punchbowl.
The devastation to what remained of Seoul, Korea, was beyond description. A waiting train transported 50 of us on our way to three troop trucks. I was the only one on the way to Punchbowl.
First stop: Punchbowl
A sergeant and two troopers greeted me upon arrival. I bid the others good luck and waved good-bye as we hiked the rest of the way to my first actual combat experience.
Punchbowl would be the one and only time during my Korean War experience where I would have the good fortune to serve with a commissioned officer. It may seem strange, but those decades since 1952-53 have erased the name of that extraordinary black officer from my memory; however, I will never forget the friendship, leadership and outstanding ability of that very good man!
As his platoon sergeant, he taught me things you could never read in a book. He instructed and demonstrated how to lead by example with a calm and confident demeanor. As a loyal American warrior, he knew his men and his assignment. His expertise and attitude was professional and his message was a consistent “We can’t fail!”
Punchbowl and the experience lived there is for another day.
My platoon leader and very good friend completed his year in that combat arena, leaving me with the dual responsibility of platoon sergeant and leader. I would not have the luxury of another platoon leader or commissioned officer the remainder of my time in Korea.
Heartbreak Ridge had some of the most horrendous battle experiences and conditions during that “Forgotten War,” and we lost a lot of good men.
It was Heartbreak Ridge where I enforced an urgency to maintain constant contact with my men through a sound-powered phone. Each squad was equipped with a phone and battery, plus the main receiver and battery used at my end. There were four platoons in a company and each contained individual squads, most of which were at the front combat lines.
Depending upon the location and terrain, our platoon could be dozens of feet apart or hundreds of yards in the distance strung out along a hillside, in the valleys or right there on Heartbreak Ridge.
The individual squads had orders to report back to my location every 15 minutes. If they did not, I went directly to their guard posts to determine why.
One stormy night, while receiving reports, lightning struck the line strung along the ground. It traveled through the line and into my ear, continued down the length of my body and exited through my foot into the ground. To me, it sounded like a M1 rifle going off inside my head.
Dazed, I remained on my feet, but within a couple minutes a second jolt hit me, although not as serious as the first. Neither strike rendered me unconscious, but I had one heck of a headache and pain in my leg and foot days later. It might have something to do with my hearing problem today.
Shrapnel injuries were a regular occurrence in a combat platoon where we experienced the blood and pain chalked off as just another “day at work.” Maybe times were different in this phase of the Korean War because we didn’t think much about medals. We were too busy fighting this war and trying to survive.
Because I was both platoon leader and sergeant, I did not feel right about an injury report or a Purple Heart recommendation filed on my behalf; besides this sort of thing was happening all the time.
An article in the Army Times about one of our battles claimed it had the most rounds of mortar and artillery fire ever experienced in 30 minutes. That artillery barrage made that lightning bolt seem like nothing.
What do you do with that much artillery coming down on you? Hunker down in your foxhole or the craters created by the bombing and say a lot of prayers. We experienced similar attacks by the Chinese and Koreans, but never to that magnitude.
The real surprise was that, in past bombardments, the enemy always followed the bombing with a full-out infantry attack. The enemy charge would then be followed with an additional barrage at the rear of their advancing infantry. The bombardment served two purposes. One was to convince their troops to vigorously charge our enforcements because, if they were to turn back, their own artillery would blow them to pieces.
The Chinese and North Koreans, at that time, didn’t have much value even for the lives of their own troops. We all knew what the other purpose was. Our enemies often have a different moral code than do we in the United States.
To this day, we don’t know why the North Koreans and Chinese decided not to follow up with that infantry charge. We waited anxiously for a long time, but it never happened! Our company, miraculously, suffered no serious injury or death, proving to each of us the Good Lord had to have been with us.
During war, unusual or really strange things occur.
On Heartbreak Ridge, while clearing brush from the enemy strikes on our position, we stopped to take a short rest. One of our squad members sat down on a hard mound of snow, which turned out to be the body of a dead Korean soldier. All we could do at the time was dig him out from under the snow and bury him nearby. For some of us, that made for a restless night’s sleep.
Because of the hills and mountainous terrain, we were either above or below the enemy. We never wanted to be at the crest. We had to be more concealed several yards below on either side to avoid being hit by mortar or sniper fire. Oftentimes our enemy was within 100 yards of us after their artillery and mortar attacks and could be on top of us in minutes or even seconds.
We used our foxholes, M1 rifles and .30-caliber machine guns to defend our position usually on an “angle” of fire that criss-crossed each squad’s position, into the enemy zone. The foxhole and the advice of “keep your head down” to escape bullet or shrapnel injury or death was quickly learned.
On occasion, platoon or squad strength positions were won or lost depending upon circumstances that were always changing. It was a rare occasion when a platoon worked at full capacity. Loss of personnel due to death and injury often took us below the numbers accepted in those war conditions, which always remained fluid with company, platoon and squads anticipating, interpreting and adjusting most of the time just to survive.
Expect the unexpected
Time away from the combat line was rare but always anxiously awaited.
I remember being sent back to the battalion rear area for new company orders, which required an overnight stay. While going through the chow line (a luxury in war) for the evening meal I noticed an elderly Korean woman who was working for our military. This wasn’t unusual as many “friendly” Koreans held such jobs.
The following day in the mess hall that same woman pulled a grenade from her gown and killed or injured several of our people. Proof again that nothing can be assumed safe or secure in a wartime situation and that self-sacrifice has been the way of some in the world for centuries.
When we left the Kumwha Valley I was off-line only 24 hours when another platoon leader and I were sent to reconnoiter positions on Pork Chop Hill. Our orders were to relieve a Turkish Army unit that had been badly shot up.
The only way to get there safely was to travel in by night. We had to cross a place called Bowling Alley, a canyon with a creek running through it. It was completely exposed to enemy fire and a very dangerous situation.
Here is another example of cultural differences. The Turkish platoon sergeant, being relieved at that time, immediately became interested in the ornate handled Japanese knife I was wearing on my belt. He wanted to trade it for the blade he used. To convince me of the quality and dexterity of his knife, he scratched an “X” on a nearby log, strolled confidently 10 or 12 feet away, turned and in one fluid move, drew the knife from his scabbard and threw it at the target, sticking it directly in the middle of that X.
I was impressed and made the trade!
A few hours later, after daylight, this same sergeant accompanied me on a tour of his unit’s position. My initial impression was that the Turks maintained the area better than some homes. There was no debris or trash evident anywhere. One of the soldiers had raked his litter into a small pile; however, it had not been removed from sight and was still obvious. He was immediately ordered to “attention” and struck hard in the face by the fist of his Turkish commander. His sergeant explained this was done because he’d been advised I was arriving and that was not an acceptable impression to be given to a visitor.
That same evening a “suicide squad” of three North Koreans attempted to infiltrate and penetrate the Turkish platoon’s defense line. The Turks killed two of the infiltrators and captured the third. They immediately cut off both his hands and bound him, alive, to a tree, “for the enemy to know what happens” when captured by Turkish forces.
That was an experience I never forgot and a message that cruelties of war are not always on just one side. War is fought and conducted in various ways not fully understood by many, including politicians who start and stop them while remaining comfortably behind to observe and contemplate their mistakes.
The war was drawing to a close in mid-1953 and eventually it became my time to return home. It was a happy time but bittersweet because I wanted to remain with my men who meant so much to me and had become my family.
I met with each of them personally, expressing my admiration, respect and the honor I felt at knowing each of those “boys” who were forced into manhood overnight. Every one of them stood up and did their duty!